Precision in language matters

Clyde Davis

Clyde Davis

By Clyde Davis

Local columnist

Recently, viewing “The Giver” with our granddaughter, on whose summer reading list the novel which gave birth to the movie had been listed, I was given insight into, or renewed insight into, certain small truths of life. Since reading the book was a prerequisite for Mikayla viewing the film, she eagerly anticipated the trip to the movie to see how true to its original the cinema version would prove.

Please understand that this is the same child who spent over three hours raptly watching the movie “Pearl Harbor” last weekend. Such events lead me to believe that she is a small version of an adult.
In the movie and the book, the dystopian society depicted insists on “precision of language.” In its context, this is just another way of reinforcing the sterility of the post-apocalyptic culture that has been constructed. However, there may be something to be said for paying more attention to precision of language.

Though not to the neurotic degree to which it is practiced in the tightly organized Giver society, the concept might benefit from swinging just slightly in the other direction. In our own context, we might be said to suffer from imprecision of language to an inordinate degree.
Take the word epic. “Beowulf” is an epic that many of us read in high school. Teaching it is, in fact, the genesis of this column. The story of Abraham, of Moses — these are epics from the Hebrew scriptures. Homer’s works recounting ancient wars are epics.

Here’s a clue. A concert is not an epic. A party is not an epic. A football game, even if the Steelers or Packers emerge victorious, is not an epic.
Take the word saga. The Icelandic sagas certainly qualify, as do the combined stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs in the Hebrew Bible.
One can hardly expect the Twilight series to qualify as a saga, however much the promoters might bill it as such. Nor are the battles in the series, fought between vampires and werewolves, in any way epic.

I’m not implying that nothing written after 1800 can qualify. The stories of James Michener, the historical fiction of Allan Eckert, really meet the standards for sagas. The events they depict — the French and Indian War, the unfolding of Hawaii — are truly epic.
A final word that would benefit from clarification might be legendary. I became aware of that when I saw a CD for the soft rock group America, in which they were tagged as legendary like the group. “Sister Golden Hair” may be one of my favorite 20 songs ever. But America is not legendary. The Beatles are legendary. The Beach Boys are legendary. Diana Ross is legendary.

Precision of language becomes even more of an issue with the profusion of words and the barrage of images that we suffer due to the Internet. Words must fight harder to get our attention, and the fallout is the cheapening of words.
These epic columns of mine may continue this saga at a later date.

Clyde Davis is a Presbyterian pastor and teacher at Clovis High School. He can be contacted at: